How do we turn Archery into a Sense of Belonging? A Staff Training Exercise
Helping staff figure out the real point of each activity at summer camp
One of the highlights of my "camp pro" career was when I had the pleasure to present a session with Go Camp Pro's own Scott Arizala at the ACA National Conference. We called it "Nurturing the Best Aspects of Summer Camp." We were ironing out the finer points of our presentation when Scott casually laid out the bones of a staff training session that sounded phenomenal.
The premise was simple. Camp staff usually know what benefits they provide to their campers: friendships, belonging, confidence, and so on. They also know the activities they lead at camp: archery, soccer, arts and crafts, and so on.
There's only one problem. While most camp staff can list the benefits of camps and the activities they run, they frequently struggle to speak to how exactly those benefits are provided during the activities that are run. Enter: Scott's training session.
Becoming more intentional in the way we lead activities
I'll walk you through how I lead this activity now, which might be different from Scott's version.
First, I take out a classic flip chart, and draw a line down the center. On the left hand side, I ask staff to list out all of our activities at camp. Then, on the other side, I ask them to list the reasons kids come to camp, and the reasons parents send them there. You can see an example of this on the right hand side.
Staff don't usually struggle to come up with either of these lists. It's interesting to notice (and point out to the group where applicable) that groups often have a lot more enthusiasm and interest in outlining the benefits of camp. They sit up straighter, more people tend to raise their hands, and so on. I often point out that this is because we all know why camp really matters - the right hand column is what gets us excited to show up at camp every summer.
At this point, I'll take the top activity on the list, and ask the group to tell me which benefits on the right are most closely associated with it. With archery, for example, they'll often point to "try new things," "challenge themselves," and "build confidence." I'll go down through the list and make dashes next to the benefits that the staff list for each activity. At the end, we'll have a picture that often looks something like the one to the right. Discussion time!
For almost every staff that I've led this activity for, an interesting trend emerges. When we start to link the benefits of camp to activities, we start to see which benefits our activities tend to emphasize most. At this point, I'll ask staff: "Do the benefits checked off on the right hand side look properly weighted to you?"
Lots of furrowed brows and faces that say, "Something's not quite right, here."
When I probe for information, some life long staff member will say something like, "Trying new things is great and all, but I know for me? Camp was the place I learned to be myself (or where I made my best friends, or where I felt understood for the first time, or whatever)."
At this point, I'll follow up with the simple question, "So do we think certain benefits at camp are more important than others? Assuming that all of these benefits are great, are there ones we should be striving to create more of, or more intentionally? If so, which are they?"
You'll get different answers based on the type of camp you run, but most frequently I'll hear some variation of "belonging/connection," "lifelong friendships," and "learning to be themselves," mixed with a few others. At this point, I'll bring over a new flip chart, and try to separate the benefits we give to campers into tiers based on the staff's perception of how important they are. Often, the list looks something like the one on the right.
Where does the magic of camp really happen?
Next, we'll circle back around on activities. Our initial assessment of our programming seems to suggest one of two things. Either we aren't as good at creating the benefits we think are most important, or we maybe didn't list some of the things we do at camp where those benefits are most likely to take place. Or some combination of both.
"Are there any times of our camp day where we see campers building up their sense of belonging, or making lifelong friendships, or learning to be themselves that we haven't listed?"
All of a sudden, staff are thinking about where, in my opinion, camp REALLY happens. They'll start listing things like "free time," or "hanging out in the cabin before bed," or "meals," or "going to the camp store." Which is to say, they'll start listing times where real human connection is happening.
Debriefing question: If these times of day are principally responsible for what we believe are the most important things we do for campers, what should we do about it?
Staff can go in a lot of directions here. Maybe we should make those times sacred, as in, people don't program over top of them. Maybe we try to learn why connection is so possible during some times of day, but less so at others. At Camp Stomping Ground, our staff decided to let kids have free time whenever they wanted if they so chose, feeling that our "tier 1" benefits were so important that we were okay if the "tier 2" benefits didn't happen for everyone. Camps will vary on this, I'm sure.
Building up the benefits of ALL camp activities
At this point we've had a nice discussion, but we still haven't really pinned down many actionable step. That's where the last part of the activity comes in.
We split off into smaller groups and work through each activity we run at camp. We split the staff into their program area groups - so the people who typically lead arts and crafts do this together, and the people who lead sports, and so on.
Their new mission? Walk through each activity and figure out how we can infuse more of the best parts of camp into each part of camp. Over the years, I've seen some really tremendous changes in the attitudes of various program leaders.
The Archery Example I remember an archery instructor standing up and saying, "Ever since I was a 6 year old camper here no one was allowed to talk at the archery range unless they were cheering someone on. Now I spend a ton of time telling people to be quiet or forcing them to cheer people on in-authentically. This summer, we're going to let kids talk or play games or do whatever when other people are shooting." He not only let them talk, he also brought up some lawn games and a picnic table so kids who weren't active shooters didn't have to sit there waiting impatiently for their turn.
Knowing that confidence was an important benefit that comes from archery, he connected the dots from another of our staff training sessions that dealt with helping campers build an authentic sense of confidence based on their evaluation of themselves. Instead of promoting hollow cheering from uninterested bystanders, he helped them set personal goals and track their own progress. Archery's really cool in this way because A) you can't help but suck at it at first and B) you can't help but get a little bit better pretty quickly. When kids could track their own results, they left feeling way better than if they had to reach some benchmark (i.e., if you hit 5 bullseyes by the end of the week you get a prize).
After the summer, he said that fewer shots were fired over all, but that kids generally seemed to have a much more positive feeling about their archery experience.
The Maker's Space is Born We had an arts and crafts team throw out the idea that we should have a forced craft that every single camper had to create. She had her arts and crafts team offer a craft idea each time, but also had them lay out a bunch of materials that kids could interact with and create with according to their own interests. The seeds of our future Maker's Space were planted.
The bottom line is, program area leaders were thinking intentionally about the experience kids were having in their program areas, and not just about the outcomes.
We also had a better understanding of what activities we wanted to emphasize, and what we wanted to de-emphasize. We stopped offering certain "camp staples" every single day, and moved higher impact activities into their place in the schedule.
Wrapping it up
As I think about what a great staff training is, I keep moving more in the direction of trying to help staff understand how to think instead of helping them to understand what to think or what to do. This activity, for me, helps them do just that. When staff are thinking intentionally, they can't help but come up with much better ways to design programs and interact with kids. I hope you can achieve the same results with your staff this summer!